Serious compact cameras

I have three camera systems: Canon EOS 5D with some nice lenses, Canon PowerShot S100, and an iPhone 4S. The Canon 5D is the most capable camera but also the biggest, heaviest, and most difficult to have with me all the time. The iPhone is the smallest, easiest to have with me all the time but it’s the least capable camera.

As many reading this know, the iPhone has been eating into the point and shoot camera market enough so that people like my wife don’t carry and use a “real” camera anymore, they simply take pictures with their iPhones or other smartphones. While I think this is great and I use my iPhone’s camera often, as a photographer I want more control than a smartphone can offer so I still have a need for a small, point and shoot camera to live between my iPhone and my DSLR.

For the past few years I’ve been using the Canon PowerShot S90, S95, and now S100 more than my other cameras because these cameras can make excellent images and are small enough to have with me all the time. That said, there are many other cameras in the growing “smaller than a DSLR” category these days and in addition to considering upgrading my 5D to a 5D Mark III, I’m also considering other cameras in the small, “serious compact” category. There is no perfect camera that will please everyone but I’m getting a better idea of what I want in a camera in this category. I like Canon’s ergonomics, both hardware and software and while I’m not absolutely stuck on Canon brand equipment, to me it’s like sticking with Apple even as other makers come out with better stuff.

In earlier versions of this post, I listed numerous cameras in the micro 4/3 category and some of Fujifilm’s new X series cameras as well as Canon’s new EOS M but decided that all of these cameras are in a different category than the one I’m interested in: they’re more expensive, more complex, and more capable and are really a middle ground between point and shoot and DSLR and they’re closer to DSLR; many people are now choosing these cameras instead of DSLRs.

I think the solution for me, at least for now, is to continue with a DSLR and lenses for studio and higher end photo shoots and continue experimenting with higher end point and shoot cameras with fixed lenses (lenses that are permanently attached to the camera, either zoom or prime).

What I have now is the Canon PowerShot S100. It’s very small (maybe too small), sports a 24-120mm f/2.0-5.9 lens, has a modern and decent (although small) sensor and image processing system and has excellent hardware and software ergonomics. Yes, it has had some production problems with stuck zoom lenses on some copies (fixed in a recall by Canon) but it’s an extremely capable little camera and I continue to learn new uses for it. Still, it lacks some things that I find appealing on other cameras.

The Canon PowerShot G12 is a great camera and I don’t mind its size relative to the S100 but its lens only opens up to 28mm which is common in smaller cameras, it’s largest aperture at 28mm is f/2.8, and it’s got an older sensor and processor in it than the S100. There will be a next generation camera in this series and I’m hoping it inherits some of the S100’s capabilities: newer image processor and sensor, 24mm f/2 lens on the wide side. I like the ergonomics of this camera although it’s viewfinder is so bad Canon should just eliminate it, it’s useless.

The Canon PowerShot G1 X camera is a slightly larger G12 with a large, APC-C sized sensor. It too lacks the fast, wide angle lens of the S100 and somehow they forgot to give it decent macro capabilities. Put its sensor in a G12/S100 hybrid and I’m in.

The Sony Cyber-shot RX100 is probably the hottest point and shoot camera on the market right now. David Pogue gave it an incredible review and for good reason: it packs a very large 20MP sensor into a pocket camera and has a very good Zeiss lens. The lens only opens wide to 29mm which is a bummer for me. If it opened up to 24mm I think I’d be tempted to buy one. It’s also twice as expensive as the Canon S100 although the image quality from the big sensor might make the price go down easier.

The Ricoh GR Digital IV is actually the closest I’ve come to my ideal camera that’s not made by Canon. If it had a 24mm lens instead of a 28 I’d have one. I bought one from B&H and returned it after two weeks because I found I really missed the drama created by the extra 4mm of wide on the S100’s 24mm lens.

This Ricoh has a very nice, simple user interface, it’s lens is a 28mm prime (no zoom) and that’s fine with me and while it’s not quite as small as the S100 it’s small enough to fit in a pocket. I think if my friend Gary Sharp got his hands on this camera it would be his favorite of all time. I may have to try one again some day.

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX7 came out recently and I haven’t had a chance to try it yet. It may very well be the best of the lot and it does sport a 24-90mm f/1.4 to f/2.3 lens. I’m not crazy about Panasonic’s ergonomics and I don’t like the fact that this camera’s lens must be capped (it has a lens cap) but it looks great otherwise. If it sported a bigger sensor…

The Fujifilm X10 is a camera I’ve not tried but it does belong in this category: fixed lens compact camera. I did try the Fujifilm X100 and wasn’t crazy about its software ergonomics although I was swayed by its loyal users who continue to make exceptional images with it. It’s considerably more expensive than typical smaller cameras and it’s bigger…. But, the X10 is small and capable and I rejected it by association. Best to get some hands-on experience with it at B&H before concluding a thing. 28mm on the wide end but still, worth a look.

I’ve no doubt left out a lot of cameras here but you get the picture, there is still a market for high end point and shoot cameras, maybe more than ever. As more casual photographers use their smartphones it will eliminate the lower end of the point and shoot market leaving the more serious photographers and hopefully companies will continue to push these “serious compacts” into new territory.